Vibrant photographs of historical costumes and those wearing them can be found throughout the halls of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures on Friday.
Professor Pravina Shukla spoke about how historical costumes can transform the average person into a Civil War general, a member of aristocracy or even a working-class citizen of the 18th century.
Shukla lectured regarding her exhibit “Costume: Beauty, Meaning, and Identity in Dress,” at the museum. In addition to curating the exhibit, Shukla is the author of the book “Costume: Performing Identities Through Dress” and spoke about the research she conducted for her book at colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During the discussion, she focused mainly on costumes from the Civil War era.
Mathers Museum director Jason Baird Jackson said the topic of costume relates to the College of Arts and Sciences Themester 2016: Beauty, which sponsored the event.
“Beauty is a big factor in the world of costume,” Jackson said. “Today in this talk she’s also dealing with issues of authenticity and history, but beauty is a big part of the story, too.”
Shukla said there are three aspects of beauty in historical costuming: the beauty of the individual, the beauty of the clothing and the beauty of the performance.
“Oftentimes, you feel more beautiful, you are wearing things you don’t usually wear,” she said. “A corset, or an apron, or a beautiful hat or some kind of jewelry or a military uniform that makes you feel like a decorated veteran. So sometimes your personal beauty is enhanced by the wearing of a costume.”
During the discussion, Shukla recounted experiences of those who work or volunteer at historical sites. She said reenactors who dress in historical costumes are usually extremely dedicated to their craft, since it takes a lot of time, effort and money to partake in the hobby.
“They’re proud of being American or their region, being a Southerner or a Northerner, they’re proud of the fact that they’re taking the time,” she said. “So while you’re sitting in an air-conditioned mall eating popcorn, I’m engaging in public education, my civil duty. They’re very proud of that.”
Shukla said sometimes it can be difficult for the actors and volunteers to achieve historical accuracy.
She said one of the reasons is that people’s body types are different now than they were during the time of the Civil War.
“A lot of people are older, you didn’t have a big, 62-year-old man as a soldier in the Union Army, so, for a lot of them, the magic moment is ruined by the vision of inauthentic-looking people,” she said. “They don’t have the same body type, they don’t have the same posture, and it changes the way the clothes look so body is very much part of it.”
Actors and volunteers can use the characters they dress as to push certain political agendas to visitors of historical sites, Shukla said. She said this does not usually happen in Williamsburg, since, as employees, the actors are given a script to follow, but it can happen with volunteer Civil War reenactors in Gettysburg.
“It can be dangerous because a lot of people don’t know enough,” she said. “I’m a teacher. I have a responsibility to something that I consider truth and accuracy to the 150 people I teach in my class. You, as a reenactor, can generally say whatever you want.”
After the lecture, Shukla answered questions from the audience members. When asked why she chose to speak about Willaimsburg and Gettysburg, she said the Civil War chapter of her book was her favorite because she learned the most.
“My first book was about dress and women, and I didn’t want to think that only women put energy and time and effort into communicating and expressing themselves through dress,” she said. “So where do you get a whole bunch of men and American history together? On the Civil War battlefield.”
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The exhibit is open through Jan. 21.